Soft 404 is a Google Search Console status. It means that some of your pages aren’t indexed because Google perceives them as unavailable.
The “Soft 404” status indicates that Google is confused by your page. Even though your server says the page is available, its content seems missing.
You may be dealing with rendering or redirecting issues, and other threats to your visibility, so you should address the problem right away.
What is the cause of the “Soft 404” status?
The status name refers to the 404 error you encounter whenever you want to visit a page that has been removed. But it’s not quite the same. Let’s begin with an explanation of what status codes are and how soft 404 is different than them.
Servers communicate with crawlers and browsers through status codes. Whenever you’re able to view a page without any problems, the server most likely responds to your browser’s request with the 200 status code.
There are also many status codes referring to possible errors, because of which the server cannot grant you access to a page. The 404 status code is one of them. It means that the page is not available because the server couldn’t find it.
Google doesn’t index 404 pages because they present no value to users.
Soft 404 doesn’t, however, occur when the server responds with the 404 error. Google labels pages as soft 404s when they meet two conditions:
- Their content seems to be missing but
- The server still responds with a 200 status code.
In other words, Google thinks that a given URL should return the 404 status code despite providing a 200 response. On this basis, it concludes that the page should not be indexed.
How to fix the “Soft 404” status
You can find your pages affected by the “Soft 404” status in the Page Indexing report. It’s easy to access from the left navigation bar in your Google Search Console.
You can gain more information about those pages by clicking on the status name. It’ll show a graph presenting how the number of affected pages has changed over time and a list of URLs. You can export the list using the button located in the upper right corner.
According to what John Mueller said on SEO Office Hours in July 2021, Google Search Console reports only those soft 404 pages that are considered as such on mobile. If some desktop pages are labeled as soft 404, but their mobile versions aren’t affected by the problem, you may not be able to see them in GSC.
To detect desktop soft 404s invisible in the GSC report, your website needs a technical SEO audit.
Let me guide you through the possible causes of the “Soft 404” status and ways to fix them.
Ensure that non-existing pages return a 404 status code
Many websites provide custom 404 pages that, instead of only reporting the error, help users navigate to the information they need and encourage them to explore the domain. Sometimes the process gets messy when left unattended, and these pages return a 200 HTTP status code.
It’s bad for your SEO because empty 200 pages make Google waste its crawl budget. The solution to this problem is to configure your server to return the correct status code for pages that don’t exist (even if they are customized) ‒ 404 Not Found.
Crawl budget waste is a key SEO challenge for all large websites. Onely’s crawl budget optimization services can help you understand and eradicate the problem.
Avoid redirecting to irrelevant pages
When faced with a lot of outdated or empty pages, you might be tempted to redirect them all to one universal place, such as your home page. However, this solution is not useful from the perspective of your website visitors.
When encountering this type of redirect, Google may label it a soft 404. To solve this problem, adhere to stricter rules while creating redirects:
- Keep your redirects thematically relevant,
- When you can’t find another page corresponding to the user’s intent, set up a 404 page instead of redirecting.
Avoid pages with little or no content
A good example of a page with little or no content is an empty directory page on an eCommerce website with products frequently going in and out of stock. Google is likely to classify it as a soft 404.
Thin content pages aren’t helpful for your users and pose threats to your SEO, such as:
- Wasting your crawl budget,
- Convincing Google that your whole website lacks quality, which may discourage Google from crawling your website as often,
- Lower rankings following a thin content manual action.
It’s best to prevent the indexing of pages with little or no content by using the noindex meta tag. It’s also a good idea to review your site architecture and consider which product categories don’t fulfill their purpose and aren’t needed.
Be careful of 404-like words
Google’s algorithms aren’t perfect and may misidentify a page if it contains words that usually appear on a typical 404 page. It might happen on, e.g., eCommerce websites when a product page uses terms like:
- “out of stock,”
- “product unavailable,”
- “we don’t deliver to your location.”
You can try to troubleshoot the “Soft 404” status by deleting those words or using neutral synonyms.
Fix your rendering issues
You can find out if Google renders your pages correctly by checking them in the URL Inspection Tool. All you have to do is click on the magnifying glass icon next to the selected URL from the “Soft 404” list.
Rendering errors can be more complex than just robots.txt chaos. Onely’s rendering SEO services will enable you to understand the source of the problem. Let’s get rid of your rendering troubles once and for all!
The “Soft 404” status describes unindexed pages that return a 200 status code, but Google is convinced that the 404 error would be more suitable for them.
To troubleshoot the “Soft 404” status in Google Search Console, try:
- Checking if your non-existent pages correctly return the 404 status code,
- Fixing your irrelevant redirects,
- Marking your thin content pages with the noindex tag,
- Deleting words that may be misleading for Google,
- Getting your rendering SEO in check.
These are effective solutions to the soft 404 issue, but none of them guarantee lasting results. To get rid of problems with indexing and crawl budget, contact Onely for a discovery call.